22 May 2011

Thoughts on Hard Blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do

Traditional martial arts instructor Dan Djurdjevic has recently started revisiting basic techniques at his blog The Way of Least Resistance. I especially like his discussions on blocking techniques.

Focussing on Karate-type blocks, Mr Djurdjevic defines blocks as follows:

a more correct term would be "deflection", "parry" or "interception". Generally traditional blocks are used to intercept and redirect attacks rather than stop them dead in their tracks. In karate and other Japanese/Okinawan arts these techniques are classified as "uke". "Uke" comes from the Japanese word "ukeru" meaning "to receive".

While our (ITF) system performs its fundamental movements somewhat differently from the way Mr Djurdjevic explains the traditional blocks in his system, there is enough overlap to make it valuable reading (as with most of his blog).

How do we view blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do? As I wrote in the post “Defensive Techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do” in ITF we have two categories of blocks, which I term soft blocks and hard blocks. “The purpose of a hard block is to 'attack' and hurt the opponent's attacking limb and so protect yourself. In so doing the opponent's attack is forcefully redirected.” On the other hand, “[t]he purpose of soft blocks are to deflect an attack by redirecting the force of the attack, or to unbalance the opponent using some kind of pushing motion. Unlike hard blocks that put emphasis on hurting the opponent's attacking tool, soft blocks put emphasis on redirecting [or deflecting] the force of the attack and / or breaking the opponent's equilibrium.”

Okinawa Karate practitioners doing forearm
conditioning exercises. (Source)
What I'm not reading in Mr Djurdjevic's posts on blocking is the idea that blocks are purposed to hurt the opponent as is the case with our hard blocks. Even his discussion on forearm blocks focus more on their function to deflect attacks. It seems that his approach to blocking is in line with how we use soft blocks. Hard blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do are used as attacks, albeit attacking of the opponents attacking limbs; deflection of an incoming attack is a secondary, although a very important function. (You can read of Mr. Djurdjevic's understanding of the hard block versus soft block issue here.) The emphasis on “attacking” with hard blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do becomes especially clear when you consider that some ITF instructors require their students to perform board breaking with their blocks, using for instance the forearms to “strike” through boards employing typical blocking motions like the outer forearm outward low block (the first movement in pattern Chon-Ji). Although not all instructors require their students to break boards with blocks (only one of my instructors stressed it), most Taekwon-Do instructors emphasize the conditioning of blocking tools. The idea of hard blocks being considered as attacks is also highlighted in the tournament sparring rules of one of the ITF-groups where a properly executed fundamental block can earn you a point. In other words, just as one can score a point for a punch to a target area, so too can one score a point for a proper fundamental block to your opponent's attacking limb.

There is, of course, a problem with the idea of using blocks as attacks. Blocks are reactive in nature, which means that blocks innately begin after your assailant commenced his attack. For it to be effective your hard block must be extremely fast. It is analogous to landing a punch to your opponent before his fist reaches you, even though he started his punch before you started yours. It is possible, but extremely difficult and requires super fast reflexes. This is one of the reasons why we almost never see traditional blocking in ITF tournaments even though it could score points.

Still, such attack-blocks are possible. My first instructor, Mr Johan Bolton, told me of one of his peers who specialised in blocking during tournaments. I can't remember the name of the person (I think it was one of the Ackerman-brothers). He would set out to purposefully hurt his opponent's limbs during tournaments by means of very fast and very hard blocks and when a successful block landed his opponent would shift that limb to the rear, too scared to attack with it again, lest it be hurt more. Apparently he won a number of fights by practically disarming his opponents. While I've never personally seen anybody use hard blocks in tournaments like this before, I have no reason to distrust this account by Mr Bolton. Furthermore, I have no doubt of the ability of hard blocks to damage someone as I have myself used hard blocks on someone before, only to later find out (by means of X-rays) that the blocks resulted in bone fractures.

Ridge hand (aka reverse-knife hand) block.
Source: Sonkal
Using hard blocks as attacks need not be limited to limbs only. One can just as easily use a forearm block to strike the neck of an opponent, for instance. By grabbing an opponent's wrist with one hand, you can use the other arm to perform an inward forearm block on the opponent's elbow joint. A close acquaintance of mine used an outward ridge hand block on the ear of a rowdy suspect while he was in the police force. The block resulted in severe trauma to the man's inner ear causing blood to emerge from his ear and nose. These are just a few examples of hard blocks being used, not merely to hurt attacking limbs, but as actually attacks to vital spots.

When we practise hard blocks merely as methods of deflection we are not doing them as they were meant to be used in ITF Taekwon-Do. If the focus is on merely deflecting, avoiding or surviving an incoming attack, soft blocks, body shifting and guards are better suited. I explained these in the aforementioned post: “Defensive Techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do.”

Also Read: Blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do, in which I consider five types of blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do, that go beyond the simple hard block versus soft block dichotomy.


Dan Djurdjevic said...

I must say that I'm amazed by your output - truly prolific and excellently put together.

I've posted a recent article that might be controversial to you, and it relates to hard blocks (of which, you will note, I am not a fan). Nonetheless, I hope it gives you some food for thought, even if it reinforces your reasoning.

See my article: Hard blocks.

Mine is just one opinion, but it runs contrary to the prevailing trend in karate and taekwondo (as near as I can tell). Accordingly it should be of some interest to you.

All the best.


SooShimKwan said...

Hi Dan,

Thank you for the compliment. As you can see from this particular post, I'm often inspired by your own writing.

Your post definitely gives food for thought and it does underscore the suspicion I had that you are not a fan of hard blocks. I will comment on your post at your blog.


Dan Djurdjevic said...

Thanks for commenting Sanko.

I've replied on my blog, but I'll post my reply here to (in a modified form):

"I don't believe in attacking people's limbs, unless you're talking an elbow break or something catastrophic like that (xingyi can use pi quan to dislocate the shoulder and I can show you some neat elbow smashes from Hong Yi Xiang's tang shao dao system!).

Otherwise, in my experience people high on adrenaline don't really notice pain in the forearms. Many's the time I've come out from an adrenaline-fueled bout only to realise that my arms are bruised and starting to swell like dead fish. I didn't notice anything at the time. I've even copped some awful shin smashes without feeling it fully - until after the fight. In the dojo you can sometimes feel even the smallest knock - but then again, you have no adrenaline etc. to distract you.

So I think it is far more prudent to use force in blocks to do what they are designed to do - deflect attacks. You really need to use all of the force of the deflection as carefully as possible to guarantee your successful defence. The more efficient you are, the less the chances the attack will come through.

And if you're going to hit someone, I would hit a vital region; I simply don't adhere to a "war of attrition" theory, where you wear down your opponent with painful, non-disabling strikes. Blogger Ymar Sakar has posted a couple of thousand words in commentary on my blogs in recent days on this topic alone. Even if I disagree with him about some matters, I agree in this respect: if you're going to strike, make it count.

With respec to the spiral or torque, I think it can be applied so as to spread the force on your own limb - however this necessarily means that you will be impacting at a right angle to the attacking limb, which is far from ideal for deflection. Angles of deflection are usually inconsistent with impact as you must "wedge" (ie. drive a sharp angle) into the attack to redirect it.

Having said all that, I'm sure I'd rather not be blocked by you!

All the best - Dan

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Dan,

I responded in much more detail at your blog.


I will, however, try to summarize my thoughts here again.

Although some hard blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do intercept an attacking limb perpendicularly, they are used far less than other hard blocks which intercept the attacking limb at an acute angle. Our hard blocks seem to "bump" against the incoming attack, but at the same time the blocking tool is spinning (torquing). This means that the torque does not require the blocking tool to "roll" over an area on the attacking limb, but rather focus this torque on a small surface area. This, of course, occurs very quickly--just for as long as the "bump" lasts. (This idea of "bumping" rather than just hurting, is probably something I need to work into this post on Hard Blocks.)

I agree with you that techniques based on inducing pain is not ideal as not only adrenaline, but also intoxication, numbs pain. Attacking vital spots are therefor better.

Thanks for this wonderful discussion. It's a great way to increase one's understanding.

Ymar Sakar said...

One of the things I've heard that make Goju Ryu soft is their forearm deflections that utilize the soft application of 4 ounces of force deflects 1000 pounds. Defending against an arm attack that way also combines their body weight together momentarily. This allows for better control over the opponent.

Hard applications seek to damage a target and does not seek control so much as seeks to destroy.

Overall, I think the advantage of the soft application here for hand defense is that it uses less energy, but the disadvantage is that it takes "extra" movement to setup a kill shot on the enemy. Hard applications of hand defenses make an opponent's attack into the start of their own undoing. The extra movements may not be noticeable, but it is present. It adds up over the course of the conflict.

I've also seen some interesting kyoshu jutsu targets on the arm itself, along the radius nerve between last year and this present day. In a way, I prefer to use an internal principle in a hard fashion. Thus I favor hard blocks of this nature, but only if combined with internal targeting. Banging on forearms, bones, and muscles simply produces pain, not the disabling of the foe. An external application.

Reverse engineering the descriptions used in the hard block post comment section, I would say that if TKD is using hard blocks as limb destruction techniques, then the TKD user must turn their waist so they are facing center on the target and then exert force through the leg and hips to the attacking surface. This may be what was being described as TKD "rolling". If the block is done without the hips and legs supporting it (sinking force to earth), then there's just no structure behind the block and thus it becomes a shock absorber. Shock absorber is good if one is using a soft application, but not so good for hard applications.

Personally, reviewing the subject, I don't think it's a matter of hard vs soft. It's a matter of context. Depending on what one's goal is, either one could work very well. The judgment of a warrior must rest predominantly on what tactics are required to win the strategic goal. In that sense, all tactics are valid, and all tactics are mistaken.

SooShimKwan said...

Thinking about it, I would say that yes, I do think that the hard blocks in ITF TKD employ much more (jerky) hip rotation than the soft blocks do. Some soft blocks may also use hip rotation, but it is a more gradual rotation.

By the way, I've expanded my description of blocks in ITF TKD much more in another post: http://sooshimkwan.blogspot.com/2011/08/blocking-in-itf-taekwon-do.html

I have found that the hard block vs soft block dichotomy just isn't adequate to describe what I saw in ITD TKD.